‘Secrets … They’re Kind of our Thing’

How the Intelligence Community navigates the murky waters of intelligence and ethics

March 2, 2020

Photo of Michael Thomas

Most of us understand basic principles of good and evil, or right and wrong, but what does it mean to be an ethical spy?

The business of intelligence is fundamentally about gathering information, analyzing it, and providing our most senior national leaders with insights to help them make the best possible decisions. And sometimes acquiring this information without the permission – or knowledge – of its owner.

That’s the nature of spying.

“So, you can see how this might create some conflict with the general idea of what we commonly think of as ethical behavior,” says Michael Thomas, deputy transparency officer in the Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Speaking at a hiring event in Huntsville, Ala., this past summer, Thomas explained that these are the dilemmas that individual intelligence officers navigate every day.

But it gets even more complicated.

Not only is the IC in charge of obtaining information that our adversaries don’t want us to have, it is also charged with protecting certain information in the interest of our national security.

“Secrets, well, they are kind of our thing,” Thomas says. “And they are rooted deeply in the foundation and function of the Intelligence Community.”

It’s a central operating principle of the IC that “decision advantage” is obtained through information asymmetry. In other words, when one side has more and better information than the other, the holder of that information has a distinct strategic advantage.

You can’t have that information asymmetry without protecting some of what you collect: what you know, how you know it, your strengths, your weakness, and perhaps most importantly, your people.

Yet the essential act of keeping that information hidden – think of the ubiquitous line, “It’s classified” – can undermine trust in our motives and methods.

Given the sensitivity and secrecy of the work, it’s no surprise that the IC operates in an environment in which rules of ethical behavior must be clarified, standardized and followed without fail.

That’s what ODNI’s Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency is all about.

We are one of the many elements across the IC helping to make sure it’s operating within the law and in accordance with American values,” he says.

So back to the key question, what does it mean to be an ethical spy?

Well, for starters, before we are spies, we are public servants, as employees of our federal government. And the basic obligation of that service is that public service is a public trust. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to place loyalty to the Constitution, laws and ethical principles above private gain.

And these aren’t just words on a page. Every intelligence officer takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, and to well and faithfully discharge their duties.

But “spies” aren’t your average civil servants. So in 2014, the Director of National Intelligence took things a step further, issuing a set of ethical principles for the Intelligence Community.

These principles reflect the core values common to all elements of the Intelligence Community and distinguish the officers and employees of the IC as “intelligence professionals.”

The principles reflect the standard of ethical conduct expected of all IC personnel, regardless of individual role or agency affiliation.

The Intelligence Community’s efforts towards greater transparency are about illustrating that professionals in the IC are using these principles as a guide to decision-making, day in and day out.

“We must think of the public as a stakeholder, alongside the president, diplomat and warfighter,” Thomas concludes, “because public trust is essential to our national security mission.”